Free press and all that jazz…

Posted: July 30, 2010 in Media
Tags: ,

Yesterday in one of my classes I spoke about the freedom of the press and said that the Indian media could not really call itself free because of the pressures brought up on by external forces when it comes to deciding whether a story should be published. What happened during the Emergency in 1975 and more recently when Tehelka did the sting operations on shady arms deals is public knowledge. I believed (and still believe) the US media has more freedom than their Indian counterparts, and were far more responsible than the Indian broadcast channels.

Today I read the shocking report about Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee of the US Department of Agriculture. Her crime (if one even call it that) was a speech that she gave at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she described her “earlier racial bitterness and partiality, her growth as a person and then as a government official, and her current view that racial division and partiality are holding back not just small farmers in the US, but everyone who is not, by birth or wealth, in the ruling class.”

But why did she lose her job? A blogger edited a video of the speech and took only the part where Sherrod confessed her earlier partiality, out of context, and published it alone. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media picked up this forgery and cast it as evidence of the rampant “reverse racism” (black against white) that they constantly cite, but never seem to lay their hands on such instances. They decided they had finally got one and it was aired. As soon as the video became public the storm broke. Sherrod was asked to submit her resignation on her Blackberry even as she drove around Washington on work.

While her resignation by itself is controversial, it’s the part played by her superiors, the blogger, and the mainstream media that raises quite a stink. Her superiors did not think it necessary to ask her for an explanation or even initiate an inquiry to determine what she had said and in what context. All this under the nose of the great African-American reformer ‘Rev’ Barack Obama! Though he apologised the damage was done.

We teach in journalism schools that one should never publish a story without confirming its veracity. Here’s was Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other media houses beaming the video on their networks without bothering to confirm its authenticity. And this is the US media we are talking about.

Reminds me of the video grab on a Hindi news channel of the school teacher in Delhi who was allegedly shown soliciting school girls in a prostitution racket. It turned out later that the video was a fake. Was any action taken against that media house?

The second incident involved a CNN West Asia editor Octavia Nasr who paid her “respects” to a Muslim cleric who was instrumental in the setting up of the Hezbollah, which the US describes as a terrorist organisation. CNN asked her to quit because they believed she had violated the editorial policy of the media house and she did, claiming that it was an “error in judgement”. Did I speak too soon about the free US media?

  1. Sumeet Nihalani says:

    Sometimes folks don’t see the difference between being a “journalist” and an “activist” and kind of abuse their journalistic freedom.

    Fox’s Bill O’Reilly really stuck his foot in it this time. His only redeeming action is his quick admission and subsequent apology to Ms. Sherrod.

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